Helix by Eric Brown
Reviewed by R. J. Burgess
12 June 2007
The Helix—a vast collection of thousands of Earth-like worlds linked together like beads on a necklace and wrapped around a star. It's clearly an artificial construct, thousands of years old and self-sustaining, but who would build such a thing? And why?
These are the questions facing Joe Hendry and the other surviving crewmembers of the Lovelock, humanity's last hope for colonisation. Charged with finding a new home for the 3,000 people stored in their hold, their peaceful voyage is disturbed when they are woken from cold sleep to find themselves spiralling out of control. Crash-landed on the fringe of the Helix, their only choice is to work their way up this gigantic celestial phenomenon one world at a time until they find a planet that is suitable for habitation.
Along the way, they encounter a wide variety of indigenous species, one of the most prominent being a lemur-like people that live on an ice-world near the edge of the Helix. Their world is covered in perpetual cloud, so they have no knowledge of the universe around them. Ruled by an autocratic church that denies the very existence of the Helix, their response to the humans' arrival is understandably hostile. Fortunately, Ehrin, a radical free-thinker amongst the lemur-people, decides to help the marooned humans and, in turn, find out the truth about the Helix and his species' place in the universe, even though by doing so, he is effectively declaring war on the church.
And so the novel begins: 500-plus pages of fast-paced SF-lite bundled up in an interesting idea. For the most part, it jumps between the viewpoints of Hendry and Ehrin, showing us both sides of their fateful encounter from diametrically opposed viewpoints. At turns shocking and fast-paced, this is space opera of the Peter F. Hamilton variety. It's often interesting and it's emotionally charged—but is it any good?
Unfortunately, not nearly as good as it should have been. A few decades ago, these sorts of novels were all the rage. Staggeringly vast constructs built millennia ago by a people we'll never understand for reasons we'll never know. Ringworld, Rama, Orbitsville: the list goes on, and they all shared one thing in common: a sense of mind-boggling awe. The function of the Big Dumb Object in SF has always been to take us by the scruff of the neck and shake us up against the sheer scale of the universe. It makes us realise just how insignificant we are—we can barely visualise such phenomena, let alone go about building them. With all respect to Eric Brown, what he has written is a very well plotted and exciting book that gets you turning the pages and genuinely wanting to know what happens next, but never makes this imaginative leap. Helix never slaps us in the face with the sheer scale of Brown's vision, and definitely suffers for it.
For example, here is the very first description of the Helix—the first time the main characters have seen it through a parting in the clouds:
High overhead, forty-five degrees above the horizon, was what looked like a thin, cloud-shrouded ribbon. Hendry followed its progress to the west and saw that it described a vast parabola through the sky, curving down until it was lost to sight to the left of where the Lovelock had crash-landed. [...] Hendry strained his vision and saw that [...] another ribbon, or tier, curved high above the original. As he tracked its course through the sky, he saw that it joined the first in what appeared to be a vast celestial spiral. 'It's like a great spring wound around the sun,' he said. 'We haven't landed on a planet—we've landed on a ... a helix.'
This is good description, and typical of the quality of writing throughout the novel, which is strong. My reason for highlighting it is that, basically, this is it as far as describing the Helix goes. This paragraph, along with a scattering of observations and analogies, is all we, as the reader, have to go on. It's not enough.
Likewise, I had no real sense of the near-impossible physics that would be required to hold such a construct in one piece. How could such a thing be accomplished? How would the close proximity of other worlds affect things like tidal patterns? These worlds would be without seasons—how would this affect things like food growth or weather cycles? How do landmasses form and shape themselves without things like erosion? How does the Helix avoid other planetary bodies crashing into it? Do they have moons? There is a limitless pool of questions just begging to be asked of this Helix, each of which would open up the story, and yet not a single one is even mulled over.
Read something like Stephen Baxter's Xeelee sequence and you can't move for scientific postulation and theoretical physics. In Ringworld, at least Larry Niven tried to come up with rational reasons as to how things might work. Sure, much of it was nonsense, but it made everything seem more real—it breathed life into what would otherwise be little more than an interesting idea. But Brown opts out of this approach, filling his pages instead with action and the trivial sub-plots of his clichéd core of characters. I could have handled clichéd, stilted characters, but when their teen-angst problems ride precedence over the very subject matter of the book ... it annoyed me no end.
Scratch further and you come away with more problems. For example, the lack of variety in Brown's world-building. He seems to have opted for a very Star Wars-esque approach to building worlds. "This one's my ice world; this one's my water world; this one's my jungle world." It's ludicrous. All the worlds have Earth-like gravity and Earth-like atmospheres. All the worlds are populated by species, which, though varying in size and appearance, have very human-like psychological make-ups. There's a lack of thinking things through at every level of this novel that really lets it down. It feels rushed and hurried and this is frustrating because with a bit more thought, it could have been brilliant.
Eric Brown is a masterful storyteller. Helix is put together extraordinarily well, jumping between the POVs of Hendry and Ehrin, holding back on key bits of information and delaying inevitable moments with leaps of perspective timed precisely to make us want to read to the end. It's a fun read; a harmless, trashy read. And despite the cop-out of having an evil autocratic church as the main villain, the action is all worked through with great finesse. I think my problem was that, as much as this novel entertained me (and it did entertain me), it just never had that extra edge of maturity that would have kicked it into the upper echelons of SF. There was no eye-opening moment of awe; no moment where you just had to stop reading and sit back with your mind going, "whoa!" Just a plot that engaged but never questioned and an idea that simmered around lacklustre.
One thing Brown is very good at doing is showing us events from the perspective of alien eyes. For example, here's a description of humans from Ehrin's people's point of view:
In the cell before him were four huge creatures, their bald flesh an unnatural pink [...] They were perhaps half as tall again as his people, and were watching him with small, animal-like eyes. But the most offensive thing about these creatures was their stench, like turned zeer milk and faeces combined.
And from another species point of view:
The Fallen were a curious species. They were tall and bulky and slow moving, with oddly flattened faces and strangely textured skin, without scales; their flesh reminded Pharan of the raw meat that lay beneath his scales, which he had seen only once following an accident.
All very believable observational humour. It's a shame this level of wit couldn't have transcended into other areas of the novel.
It's difficult to truly dislike this novel. All the elements are here for something great: a massive construct, first contact with an alien species, an autocratic government, but for some reason, it just doesn't come together as it should. Eric Brown is often lauded as the next big thing in science fiction and you can see why, but this novel is not the next big thing and you shouldn't go into it expecting it to be anything more than what it is: an entertaining stab at a sub-genre that was done to death twenty years ago.